While it’s never easy to prepare for a fight with Valentina Shevchenko, not having your head coach in the corner makes things much more difficult ahead of a first world title fight.
That’s what happened with Lauren Murphy ahead of her flyweight championship bout with Shevchenko this past Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 266, a fight that Shevchenko dominated en route to a fourth-round TKO.
Murphy is not making any excuses whatsoever and gives full credit to Shevchenko and her next-level skillset. But on Tuesday of fight week, she and her team found out that head coach Alex Cisne tested positive for COVID-19 and was pulled from the corner.
“Man, that sucked, because I’ve worked with him so closely throughout the camp, he’s the guy that does all the game planning, and I was 9-0 heading into this fight with Alex in my corner,” Murphy told MMA Fighting. “That’s the one thing [of fight week] that was really like, ‘F*ck.’”
The news was shocking, for sure, not just for Murphy, but for the rest of the coaching staff that all had established roles and all feed off each other in certain ways.
When the initial disappointment turned into acceptance, Murphy and her team got together so they could make a big, crossroads career decision just days away from the biggest fight of Murphy’s career.
“When we found out on Tuesday that he tested positive, the UFC quarantined him and made him leave the fighter hotel and that he couldn’t corner me on Saturday, at first, we were thinking we would pull out of the fight,” Murphy said. “I was like, ‘I need to have my coach there.’ I don’t know, we just ended up deciding not to. I was healthy, I didn’t have any injuries, I wasn’t sick. The odds of me showing up to a title fight being in that good of health probably weren’t very good and I thought, ‘If I pull out of the fight, what would happen?’ They’d probably put Cynthia [Calvillo] in because Valentina would still want to fight, then I’d probably have to fight another No. 1 contender fight just to get back to the title again.
“My manager was staying in the hotel with us and we all sat down as a team wondering if we should all go forward, because that’s my head coach. Derrick Lewis wouldn’t fight without Bob Perez in his corner. Would Valentina fight if f*cking Pavel [Fedotov] tested for COVID? I don’t know, but it was a hard choice to make but we were pretty close to calling it. I slept on it to see where we were at Wednesday morning, and I just felt like I had to do it. I didn’t know what the reaction would be if I pulled out of the fight.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get another title shot. I didn’t know if the UFC would pull me and be like, ‘Fine, we’ll pull you, you don’t have to fight, but in order to fight Valentina, you’re gonna have to win another [No. 1 contender] fight.’ So then we may not be back here for another year, which in hindsight, we should’ve done that. But we didn’t know in the moment if that was the fight choice to make.
“It just seemed like we had been through too much at that point, but I was pretty bummed Alex couldn’t corner.”
“Lucky” certainly earned her opportunity to face Shevchenko, picking up five straight victories along the way. Murphy told MMA Fighting that, on top of everything she was dealing with on the road to the bout, one of the first exchanges with Shevchenko made her realize that she had never experienced anything quite like that throughout her, now, 20-fight career.
Without having Cisne physically in the corner, and making the decision to move forward with the matchup, Murphy and her team thought of an out-of-the-box way to ease the tension.
“We had gotten cleared for Alex to be in an earpiece in Paris [Moran’s] ear — who was our fourth corner that was there to pretty much warm me up — so he could watch the fight on mute with the commission sitting there,” Murphy explained. “They didn’t want any cheating or anything, but he would watch the fight with the commission watching him, he would talk into Paris’ earpiece, but he was on a full minute delay. So we would be in the corner and he would have something to say, but already the next round had started.
“It was kind of sh*t show, not really the way I envisioned it happening. That’s the one thing I wish could’ve gone differently having him in the corner, so then [my husband] Joe had to do two jobs. Alex is a really good striker, he’s a good striking coach, so anything happening on the feet between Valentina and I, Joe felt a little lost, like he didn’t have the experience to guide me through it. Bob Perez was there, but Bob was giving me the basics.”
Murphy said the rest of fight week went great, from the media obligations to the press conference, the extra attention, and everything else the UFC had to offer ahead of a big event.
Getting closer to the bout and having a secondary corner plan in place, things were almost switched up just moments before the fight began.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get in my head a little bit that Alex wasn’t there,” Murphy stated. “It was a sh*t show trying to include him via f*ckin’ phone or FaceTime and we got cleared from the commission, ‘Can my coach be on the earbud the best we can?’ The commission was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’
“Then we got to the arena and the UFC came back to the locker room as was like, ‘No, that’s not fine. You can’t do that, you can’t have your coach on a f*cking ear piece while you guys are in the corner.’ Like, we’re at the arena. I was warming up, so Joe started freaking out like, ‘Hey man, we agreed to do this fight because you guys said her coach could electronically be in the corner. This is a big fight.’ He kind of talked them into it and that’s how Alex got to be in the room with the commission, then there was the 40-60 second delay, so there was one point in the corner where Joe would say something to me, look over at Paris and Paris was supposed to repeat what Alex had said, and Alex was on such a delay that he didn’t even know we were in the corner, so he didn’t have anything to relay to Paris, so Paris was like, ‘I got nothing.’”
Between rounds, as things were going from bad to worse for Murphy through the first 15 minutes, Murphy’s husband Joe was heard giving positive thoughts and advice to his wife, which had former two-division champion and UFC color commentator Daniel Cormier questioning the corner’s approach.
Since Saturday night, Murphy has yet to watch the fight back with the commentary, but she was made aware of Cormier’s comments from a few different people. What Cormier, or a lot of other people weren’t aware of, was that the main piece of the cornering puzzle was missing, which didn’t just throw things off for Murphy, but the entire team.
Regardless of what anybody says, Murphy doesn’t believe the result would have changed had she had a full coaching staff.
“I can’t say, ‘If Alex had been there, I would’ve won,’ I can’t say that, but I definitely would’ve felt more comfortable and I think I would’ve tried more things,” Murphy said. “I’m really comfortable in the corner asking Alex questions that I was wondering about and I just felt bad that ‘DC,’ I guess, got on Joe’s case so bad — and I haven’t watched the fight back or heard what he said, but a couple of people messaged us and called us saying he was ragging on Joe. I felt bad about it because DC didn’t realize I only had three corners in there that night, he didn’t realize our fourth guy was gone, the head guy, the sounding board for what was going on. Suddenly, we lost a major leg to the table, the support for this fight, so Joe was trying to do two jobs.
“Joe knows that one of the things I like about having Alex there is that he stays calm in the corner. He doesn’t get all f*ckin’ riled up, he stays real calm and I think Joe was trying to emulate that.
“DC doesn’t know that though. Joe was probably trying to keep me from being discouraged, and it’s easy with a fighter like Valentina to get really discouraged and, truth be told, I was discouraged with the stuff with my coach, that first exchange where it was like, ‘I can’t take too many of those f*cking strikes,’ which made me timid. In the second round I put her on the cage and I couldn’t move her at all, I couldn’t move her legs and my confidence was just getting chipped away. I think Joe was just trying to, in that moment, make sure my confidence wasn’t totally blown out. That was a big hurdle that we had. I tried to overcome it, I tried to tell myself this is the kind of stress champions deal with, and it was tough.”